Before Michigan basketball embarked upon its current postseason run, coach Juwan Howard had a message to share with his players.
Howard, according to center Hunter Dickinson, told the Wolverines that the NCAA tournament “can really set you up for life if you do well.”
“That’s something that works for us because as a team with players that have aspirations to play other than just in college, the NCAA tournament can really, like I said before set you up for life,” Dickinson said on March 17. “It’s a big opportunity for us to kind of make their name during the tournament.”
Florida State Seminoles forward Malik Osborne (10) controls the ball against Michigan Wolverines guard Franz Wagner (21) in the first half during the Sweet 16 of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 28, 2021.
As Michigan prepares for Tuesday night’s game against UCLA in the Elite Eight, it is worth remembering Howard’s message — especially as it pertains to Franz Wagner.
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The sophomore forward from Germany is already U-M’s most decorated pro prospect. He is commonly projected as a first-round pick, with some outlets predicting he will be taken in the lottery.
As it currently stands, Wagner is just one of a few first-round prospects left standing: Of the 19 players projected to be taken ahead of Wagner in ESPN’s most recent mock draft, just three are still playing in the postseason USC’s Evan Mobley and the Gonzaga paring of Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert.
The spotlight was already on Wagner. But it has only become more amplified. And that coincides with a matchup in which the Wolverines will need Wagner to play to his full ability.
The Bruins’ run from the First Four to the cusp of the Final Four has been spurred by their two star scoring wings, Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez. The two have accounted for 46.8% of UCLA’s scoring in the NCAA tournament, combining for 147 of 314 total points.
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Juzang and Jaquez are their team’s two leading scorers because they are UCLA’s most talented offensive players. They can drive, hit mid-range jumpers and shoot from distance. Juzang and Jaquez are often tasked with taking difficult shots, and their season is still alive right now because they have made plenty of them in Indianapolis.
Michigan Wolverines guard Franz Wagner (21) celebrates with teammates in the second half against the Florida State Seminoles during the Sweet 16 of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 28, 2021
It is a safe assumption that Wagner will guard either Juzang or Jaquez; maybe even both over the course of the game. That is part of what makes him so vital to Michigan’s top-10 defense: Wagner has the defensive capability to take on an opponent’s most talented perimeter player and win that individual matchup.
“On defense, he’s absolutely terrific,” wrote The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie on March 16. “His exclusion from the Big Ten’s All-Defense team was baffling, as he has absolutely tremendous off-ball instincts that allow him to make an impact rotationally all over the court. He uses his length and anticipation of what’s going to happen exceptionally well.”
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In U-M’s win over Florida State in the Sweet 16, Wagner helped limit the Seminoles’ leading scorer, guard M.J. Walker to 10 points on 5 of 14 shooting. During one possession late in the second half, Wagner switched onto Walker after a screen, cut off Walker’s drive to the basket, didn’t bite on any of Walker’s pivots or fakes and blocked his shot.
Wagner also had a hand in defending Scottie Barnes, FSU’s highly-touted freshman and fellow projected first-rounder. Barnes scored eight points on 4 of 11 shooting and finished with as many turnovers as assists.
“Today, the impact that he has on the game, just like his teammates, was extremely effective with having the ball in his hands and also being on the defensive end,” Howard said after the win.
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Wagner has, of course, impacted Michigan’s run in other ways. He has scored in double digits the past two games, taking over late against LSU in the second round, and dished out five assists against the Seminoles. He is a fine offensive player who can score crucial baskets by slashing to the rim.
Michigan’s Franz Wagner defends Maryland guard Aaron Wiggins during Wolverines’ 79-66 win in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals Friday, March 12, 2021 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
But defense is his calling card. And it is what the Wolverines need from him to keep their season alive.
“Well, Franz has developed,” Howard said. “He has gotten better each and every year, and he’s only been here for two years. It’s been a joy to coach, and I know my staff will agree, a guy that has a high IQ, high ceiling, loves basketball, a grinder.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Michigan basketball’s Franz Wagner must shine to make Final Four